Thursday, June 13, 2013

Ashes

Alaska, Prince of Wales Island, fly fishing
A glimpse of the perfect place.
There's a little creek that feeds Sumner Straight at the northern tip of Prince of Wales Island. I'll never utter its name, save for in the instructions I'll leave behind to my children to be opened after I'm dead and gone.

Those instructions will put them on the island in late August, when the silvers are running and the Dollies are colored up. The words will direct my kids along the karst road system of the island to a bridge over this small, watery paradise, and they'll simply read, "Walk downstream from the bridge a couple hundred yards until you find a gravel bar. Spread my ashes there and douse them in a pint of Jameson. Then, go fishing."


This little piece of Alaska is sacred to me. There, amid the last run of summer humpies and the first showing of salt-fresh cohos, I'll rest until the fall rains flush the creek and carry what's left of me out to the cold, gray Pacific. I don't need a headstone. I don't need a burial plot. I just want my children to know their Dad had a place where everything felt just right, and I want them to experience it for themselves.

I first visited this little stream in the summer of 2004. It was a borderline junket--a lodge in the area was pondering the notion of offering its clients fly fishing trips along the island's road system in addition to its self-guided saltwater fishing for salmon, halibut and a host of other game fish that swim in the cold waters of the Inside Passage. Its owners, who live here in eastern Idaho, invited me up to be the Guinea pig.

fly fishing, Dolly Varden, Alaska
A big Dolly from the Tongass.
For the price of a plane ticket to Petersburg and a short float-plane ride to Point Baker, I got to motor along the Prince of Wales Island road system for a week solid, fishing every creek I crossed and taking notes for the lodge owners. I reported back, dutifully, both my successes and my failures--and there were plenty of the latter, particularly for a guy who'd never before been to Alaska, let alone chased salmon and char under the canopy of the rainforest.

But I was enamored by this country. It was so ... green. So lush. So alive. The sicky-sweet smell of dying salmon mingled with with smell of wet cedar and some pretty lively black bear shit, creating this olfactory overload of life, death and renewal. Anywhere else, the odor might turn a stomach. Here, it smells like ... Heaven.

I've been back to that little creek a few times since that first visit, and I've explored its course for miles, both upstream and down from the bridge. Bear trails line its banks making traveling the stream somewhat simple, yet just unnerving enough to keep the hair on the back of my neck a bit bristly. I've come face-to-face with several of its black bears, and I've been scolded by bald eagles for invading their fishing waters. I've spooked black-tailed deer from beneath giant yellow cedars, and walked across the stream atop massive spruce trunks that have collapsed under their own weight and crashed to earth.

I've discovered solitude in this American temperate jungle, this little slice of the Tongass National Forest. I've witnessed life just as its supposed to be in this tiny corner of Prince of Wales, and I think it ought to stay that way.

clear cut, fly fishing, Prince of Wales Island
A clear cut growing back as a single-species forest.
But the rest of the island is far from pristine. It's been heavily logged, and the road system, with its perched culverts and muddy runoff doesn't do the island's streams any favors. Patches of second-growth timber are usually single-species thickets and so thickly overgrown that the locals call these patches of woods "dog hair."Wildlife can't navigate through the tiny tree trunks, and sunlight can't hit the forest floor, where it can nurture massive ferns and huckleberries the size of your thumb. And before this growth matures, frequent rains simply drain into the creeks and streams, carrying unfiltered sediment into the waterways on which salmon, steelhead, trout and char depend for spawning and rearing.

Prince of Wales might be the perfect laboratory. We can see what the land and the water should look like. And we can see where past industrial practices have left behind their scars.

As it should be.
There's an effort afoot, though, to keep the Tongass whole, to keep its waters clean and its salmon coming back year after year. I'm grateful that I get to be part of it, albeit a small one. This year, Trout Unlimited, along with its sponsors--Fishpond, RIO Products and Tenkara USA--will host TU's annual blogger tour on the Tongass, where a handful of writers, photographers, filmmakers and bloggers will have the opportunity to see the Tongass in all its glory. They'll have a chance to fish in some of the most pristine fish and game habitat left in the world... and they'll have an opportunity to see what happens when things go terribly wrong.

I'm fortunate to know a slice of the Tongass that still functions as it should... that still sees the thousands upon thousands of pink salmon pushing their way upstream to spawn. I know the Tongass and its brilliant char, decorated in orange and green and blue. I know the Tongass and its silvers and chums that can spit a fly with little effort and leave you humiliated beneath a canopy of deep green.

I hope you'll follow along next month, when the tour puts boots on the ground in Juneau. And I hope you'll find a way to contribute to the effort to protect the Tongass, its fish and its people for generations to come.

Most of all, I hope you'll find your way to the rainforest, and I hope you'll cast a fly under its canopy. Every angler ought to do it at least once.

And, frankly, that's the experience that hooked me--casting a fly to vibrant char in a place almost too perfect to comprehend. And I hope my kids, burdened by my ashes, will one day see and feel the magic of the Tongass, where we can say our final goodbyes and know that, for one moment in time, everything was just as it was supposed to be.

3 comments:

  1. How could a sighted person not love that place...no matter the price.

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    Replies
    1. Indeed, Howard... it's Heaven on earth... simple as that.

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  2. I know that place...but will keep your secret.

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